The Silver Chair (C. S. Lewis)

Turns out I will have a difficult time deciding on my favorite Narnia book.  I thought it would easily be The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but after reading The Silver Chair I’m not so sure.

In this installment, Eustace is back, along with his schoolmate Jill Pole.  In another jab at “progressive” childrearing (whatever that meant to Lewis – still haven’t found an answer about the Scrubbs’ “special underwear” from the last book), Jill and Eustace are miserable at their school Experiment House.  Eustace tells Jill about Narnia and “prays” to Aslan that they might visit.  Later, when they’re chased through the school’s perimeter wall by some bullies, instead of coming out on the moors, they emerge in Aslan’s country instead.  Jill’s first visit, however, gets off to a pretty bad start when she accidentally knocks Eustace off a cliff.  He is rescued by Aslan, of course, who blows him away to Narnia on his breath.  Aslan then gives Jill three signs which she must remember at all costs, before blowing her away to Narnia as well.

When Jill lands in Narnia, she finds herself back with Eustace, just as the ancient king sails away to visit an outlying territory.  The king is Caspian, who was barely out of his teenage years when Eustace last saw him (the Narnian time continuum strikes again).  They also meet Glimfeather the owl, who tells them the tragic story of Caspian’s son Prince Rilian.  One day ten years before, Rilian and his mother went out riding.  Rilian’s mother, while she rested in the grass, was bitten by a green serpent and died.  Rilian sought vengeance on the beast, but instead was inveigled away by a beautiful woman in a green dress, at the exact spot of his mother’s death.  Caspian searched far and wide for his son but never found him.  Since Caspian is now near death without an heir, Glimfeather and his owls secretly send the children to search for Rilian.  And thus begins their adventures.

I warmed to The Silver Chair as soon as Rilian’s backstory was revealed.  I couldn’t help myself:  I’m a classical musician, and if there’s one Greek myth that a classical musician will know, it’s Orpheus and Eurydice (it’s been made into several operas over the centuries).  Orpheus was the son of one of the Muses, and a gifted musician.  When his wife Eurydice died of a snakebite, Orpheus journeyed into the underworld to get her back.  Hades, touched by Orpheus’ music, agreed to free Eurydice on the condition that Orpheus never look at her on his way back to the surface.  And of course the original myth is a tragedy:  Orpheus fails at the last moment and turns to look at Eurydice, at which point she returns to the underworld.  (Orpheus’ charming of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the underworld, is also the inspiration for J. K. Rowling’s Fluffy being lulled to sleep by music.)

The Silver Chair is not a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice per se, but it borrows from it extensively.  A woman is killed by a snakebite;  when the children finally reach the underground world, they must cross an underground lake on a boat (much like the River Styx).  Some things are tweaked – it’s Rilian’s mother, not his wife, who is killed by snakebite, and it’s a man, not a woman, who is trapped in the underworld.  Most interestingly to me, the role of music is inverted entirely.  The children don’t use music to free Rilian or charm his captor – who you can probably guess is the beautiful woman, the “green witch,” who lured him underground in the first place, and is the green serpent in a different form.  Rather, the witch uses music for evil, to put the children under her spell and keep them from saving Rilian.

Speaking of spells and parallel worlds, in social media conversations, my blogger friend the Autodidact pointed out to me that The Silver Chair is a perfect example of gaslighting.  Now that I’ve read it, I definitely agree.  Rilian, under the witch’s spell, believes her to be his protector (rather than what she really is, his kidnapper and his mother’s murderer).  When the witch goes to work on the children, we see how Rilian got into this condition, because the witch specializes in relentlessly feeding her victims a false version of reality until they accept it as true:

“And what, or where, pray is this…how do you call it…Overworld?”

“Oh, don’t be so silly,” said Scrubb, who was fighting hard against the enchantment of the sweet smell and the thrumming.  “As if you didn’t know!  It’s up above, where you can see the sky and the sun and the stars.  Why, you’ve been there yourself.  We met you there.”

“I cry you mercy, little brother,” laughed the Witch (you couldn’t have heard a lovelier laugh).  “I have no memory of that meeting.  But we often meet our friends in strange places when we dream.  And unless all dreamed alike, you must not ask them to remember it.”

“Madam,” said the Prince sternly, “I have already told your Grace that I am the King’s son of Narnia.”

“And shalt be, dear friend,” said the Witch in a soothing voice, as if she was humoring a child, “shalt be king of many imagined lands in thy fancies.”

“We’ve been there, too,” snapped Jill.  She was very angry, because she could feel enchantment getting hold of her every moment.  But of course the very fact that she could still feel it, showed that it had not yet fully worked. 

“And thou art Queen of Narnia, too, I doubt not, pretty one,” said the Witch in the same coaxing, half-mocking tone.

“I’m nothing of the sort,” said Jill, stamping her foot.  “We come from another world.”

“Why, this is a prettier game than the other,” said the Witch.  “Tell us, little maid, where is this other world?  What ships and chariots go between it and ours?”

Of course a lot of things darted into Jill’s head at once:  Experiment House, Adela Pennyfather, her own home, radio-sets, cinemas, cars, airplanes, ration-books, queues.  But they seemed dim and far away.  (Thrum-thrum-thrum – went the strings of the Witch’s instrument.)  Jill couldn’t remember the names of the things in our world.  And this time it didn’t come into her head that she was being enchanted, for now the magic was in its full strength;  and of course, the more enchanted you get, the more you feel that you are not enchanted at all.  She found herself saying (and at the moment it was a relief to say):

“No.  I suppose that other world must be all a dream.”

“Yes.  It is all a dream,” said the Witch, always thrumming.

“Yes, all a dream,” said Jill.

“There never was such a world,” said the Witch.

“No,” said Jill and Scrubb, “never was such a world.”

“There never was any world but mine,” said the Witch.

“There never was any world but yours,” said they.

This is indeed textbook gaslighting – an abuser calling their victim crazy, insisting they’re misremembering or imagining things, that past conversations or events (usually the abuser’s own actions) never really happened.  Subjected to a constant stream of this, the victim begins to doubt themselves – just as the abuser intended.  There are plenty of parallels to cults too, in which members are brainwashed into an alternate reality, often to the point that they must be psychologically deprogrammed before they can see the real one.  Hell, our current spate of “fake news” and “alternative facts” isn’t really all that different from this.

That said, I’m pretty sure Lewis’ perfect portrait of abusive crazymaking and information control was unintentional.  As far as I can tell, he meant the witch’s arguments to represent the alternative “story” offered by atheism – in particular, the idea that God is only man projecting himself on a grand scale (remember Aslan = Jesus):

The Witch shook her head.  “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun.  You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun.  You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion.  Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger.  And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. … Come, all of you.  Put away these childish tricks.  I have work for you all in the real world.  There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan.”

Lewis pushes back with, in essence, the argument that Christianity’s “story” is better and more appealing.  The main, well-known (in certain circles, at least) rebuttal is delivered by Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle who has accompanied the children:

“One word, ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire;  limping, because of the pain.  “One word.  All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder.  I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it.  So I won’t deny any of what you said.  But there’s one thing more to be said, even so.  Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.  Suppose we have.  Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.  Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world.  Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one.  And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it.  We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.  That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world.  I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.  So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland.  Not that our lives will be very long, I should think;  but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Like I did when I reviewed Prince Caspian, I’ll admit to my loyalties and say up front that I’m theist and Christian.  Atheism and naturalism don’t inspire me at all, and I tend to see them leading logically to some kind of nihilism.  But as with most of Lewis’ allegories, this does strike me as preaching to the choir a bit.  Because of course, in the actual real world, the existence of God, for most people, isn’t nearly as plain as the existence the sun.  I’m a theist, so yes, I think the idea of God makes sense.  But I would never claim that it’s that inescapably obvious.  And just insisting that it is won’t convince anybody who doesn’t already agree with you.  Now it might actually be possible to present this argument in a way that could convince outsiders.  But I think it’s clear by now that that’s not what Narnia was designed to do.

Returning to Puddleglum for a moment, I’m pretty sure I’ve found my favorite character in this series.  Because Puddleglum is such a delightful mix of pessimism and optimism.  His pessimism and self-effacing put-downs are hilarious and endearing.  But at the same time, he does exactly as he says – puts the best face on it – and buoys the others up with his practicality and patience.  Maybe I can relate too much, as someone who feels compelled to game out all the worst-case scenarios.  But there’s no sense in staying there, so put the best face on it and just keep walking.

Finally, and unfortunately, something genuinely disturbed me in this book:  the ending, specifically Aslan’s role in it.  Everything is going fine at first – Rilian returns, the children get back to Aslan’s country, Eustace gets to see Caspian young and vital again.  But then, when the children must go back to their own world, Aslan actually fits them out with weapons to beat up their bullies at Experiment House – and on top of that, gives Caspian permission to join in too.  And when they’re actually beating up the bullies, Lewis says they do it “with the strength of Aslan in them.”

Despite the fact that Aslan is supposed to be Jesus – and generally speaking, in the other books he’s a decent representation – this…does not strike me as something that Jesus would have endorsed.  I’m not at all claiming that Jesus endorsed total passivity in the face of bullying or abuse, or that it’s always categorically wrong to respond physically to a bully.  There are situations where violence might be necessary to defend yourself or others.  But there’s nothing in the text to indicate that this is one of those situations.  So in essence, Lewis is portraying casual vengeance as fun, and has “Jesus” happily handing out the tools to do it – and encouraging someone (Caspian) who wasn’t even hurt by these people to participate in beating them up.  Yeah, I have a problem with that.

And I think there are even more worrying overtones to this scene.  It all started because, for her weapon, Aslan gives Jill a riding crop.  I recently encountered riding crops in another context, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  (I swear, the review will happen at some point…)  It was only a passing reference, in which a lower-class character, James Vane, is contemplating his hatred of gentlemen, which Wilde attributes to “race-instinct.”  Specifically, Vane reacts angrily to the implied insinuation that he is the bastard son of a gentleman himself;  in Wilde’s words, “He remembered it as if it had been the lash of a hunting-crop across his face.”  The notes in my Penguin Classics edition of Dorian Gray note other examples of this image, a commoner being struck across the face by an aristocrat – though in the other case, from Thomas Hardy, it was a glove rather than a riding crop.

This discussion was still fairly fresh in my mind when I got to this bit in The Silver Chair, so I instantly noticed the riding crop.  And in the context of Lewis’ use of Experiment House to jab at the “progressive” parents of his day, frankly it stinks.  The superior people who get it, and aren’t limp-wristed cowards, get to beat the cowards up for fun – just like nobles get to beat up commoners whenever they feel like it?  And Jesus is apparently okay with this?

I mean, this is the ugly underbelly of chivalry and always has been.  Courteous behavior was for your peers, not peasants and underlings.  Those people got raped and pillaged (and the noble knight chastely courting his lady was probably banging her chambermaid on the side, without repercussion or even comment, the entire time).  Lewis tries to paint chivalry positively throughout the series, especially in the character of Reepicheep.  It’s appealing in that fictional context – but definitely not convincing in real life once you know the entire story.

But hey, maybe I’m reading too much into this.  Feel free to correct and/or enlighten me further.  In any case, this was a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent book.

Ah, but I wanted to end on a happy note – literally!  I mentioned above that the Orpheus myth has been made into several operas, so it’s time for some music.  I have fond nostalgic memories of this first piece from my middle school years, when I played flute.  Long live Dance of the Blessed Spirits, from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

And for an entirely…er…different take on the story, might I direct you to Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld…with a piece I know you’ll recognize.  Didn’t I say I’d end on a happy note?  🙂

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